Lee Alexander: Discovering mindfulness by accident
Lee Alexander shares a very personal account of dealing with mental health, and this journey to discovering mindfulness.
For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety, depression and panic attacks. I used to see them as an inconvenience which I had to hide, not allowing them to get in the way of life. However; in trying to just ‘carry on’ with life, I would create work arounds, excuses and avoidance tactics, which overtime became so prevalent, life was a complex web of managing situations. I stoically (or foolishly) carried on like this for too many years, progressing in my career, hiding it from work, friends and family and generally just trying to get through life.
One day in 2010, something cracked and life overwhelmed me. The periods of clear thinking, focus and happiness, which I learnt to cherish so much, had become too few and far between. My mind had become blurred, my thinking irrational and my thoughts a spiral. I couldn’t take a breath, let alone think my way out of this one, I just needed everything to stop and I wanted to get off. In my mind, ‘getting off’ meant failing, it meant the end of my career, the loss of my house and life as I knew it would be over.
A trip to the Doctor quickly turned from one of trepidation to one of relief. I had finally opened up about how I had felt for the last 26 years and a simple note that signed me off work, gave me permission to stop juggling, forget the spinning plates and to focus on the present. I was signed off for a total of 5 weeks, a long time for someone with a tendency to ruminate!! Whilst the Doctor said I needed to find an activity “to take my mind off things”, the first days of my leave were spent looking for less stressful jobs, worrying that I had been found out and that I had wasted many years trying to get on in a career for it all to come crashing down. The negativity was relentless in those days, my mind was hard wired to be drawn to a catastrophic conclusion; I’m going to lose my job, I will lose my house, relationships will end… it’s safe to say that this train of thought was not helpful!
A couple of weeks into my leave, I sat in my garden; it was overgrown, full of weeds and desperately needed a bit of care. I just decided to start weeding and before I knew it, the hours had passed and the day was over. I couldn’t put my finger on what had happened, but my negative thoughts had been replaced, unconsciously and by accident. This was a revelation to me, I had always assumed that the way to solve a problem was to think it through and when that didn’t work, think about it some more! For the first time in a long time I had clarity of thought, the ability to focus. So, the next day I went in to the garden and continued weeding; this progressed to planting flowers, to then building a bench and then finally to constructing a pagoda.
During my time off, I had accidently discovered mindfulness (as well as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Sertraline). When I returned to work my thought-process had changed, I could remain in the present and I could step away from a spiral. The less I worried, the clearer I thought and this realisation kick started my journey of recovery. Until this point my mind had been blurred, but it was like I had been given a new set of glasses, things became clearer. Gardening was my route into mindfulness; I would find time each weekend or in the evening to go out into the garden. I have no idea why gardening works for me, in fact I try not to think about it too much or understand why… the beauty is that it just works.
The journey hasn’t been plain sailing; there are ups and downs, challenges and the return to negative thoughts, stress and anxiety. However; as the periods of clear thinking, focus and happiness grow, I am better placed to cope with the darker times knowing that they are only temporary and will pass. This reassurance, coupled with some extra time spent in the garden works for me. I now know how to look after my mind; I know the triggers and what I can do to help myself. If I find my OCD increasing, I know there is a potential undercurrent waiting to engulf me. At this time, I take a step back and spend some time in the potting shed.
To draw this story to a close, I remained in the job ‘I couldn’t do’ for a further 6 years before progressing. I still garden regularly, but not as much as I’d like, with much of my time taken up with my young family. Thankfully my daughter keeps my mind sufficiently occupied and won’t let me live in anything other than the present!! I no longer dislike the complexity of my mind; I accept that it is part of who I am. It is my complex thought process that makes me care, gives me compassion, morals and values. It is a positive thing, which just needs the occasional adjustment or redirection, often facilitated by an afternoon spent in the garden.